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COVID-19 and Its Implications for a Frail Democracy. The Example of Myanmar

May 4, 2020

Michael Marett-Crosby, The Suu Foundation, Myanmar
Chair: Professor Michael G. Plummer, Director of SAIS Europe; Eni Professor of Economics of International Economics

Myanmar’s recent post-independence history reveals some of the fractures within the Southeast Asian state and the fragility of its democracy. Independence in 1948 amalgamated a plethora of ethnic groups in the region, with Marett-Crosby noting at least 135 languages or dialects spoken. Then the assassination of General Aung San, the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, before independence left a power vacuum which weakened the young democracy and facilitated a power struggle between democratic forces and the military which still characterises the country today. 

As Marett-Crosby argues, the 2008 change to the constitution formalised an awkward power sharing between military rule and the civilian government, undermining democratic gains made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in two landslide democratic elections in 2011 and 2015. Recent ethnic conflict in Myanmar has included attacks and the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims from northern Rakhine State; however, this conflict, as well as many others, have existed in Myanmar for generations. Many communities in Myanmar have been in a near constant state of civil war.

In this context, the COVID crisis represents a much wider challenge - how to coordinate the various power structures across communities, how can the country manage the catastrophic public health and economic crises that are unfolding.

Since independence Myanmar has never been without conflict. Across multiple regions in the north and south of the country there have been clashes between the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, and local groups, and as a result there are swathes of the country who are not under the control of the central government. These represent real limits to the remit of the central government and, as Marett-Crosby emphasises, during the COVID-19 crisis, these limits to the central government become immensely important. COVID-19 itself shows no respect to such borders - so the question of who holds power in, and has responsibility for, these regions becomes urgent and important. Marett-Crosby questions: should the civilian government engage with armed groups? Is this the moment for ceasefire? Ceasefires are vastly complicated in conflicts that have been raging for over fifty years and the continuation of violence in the Rakhine state has already resulted in the death of a WHO driver collecting COVID samples in the state.

He therefore concludes that the COVID crisis is both a mirror and a torch, shining a light on the fragility of power and responsibility in these regions of Myanmar. However, this crisis may also show the deeper instability of the basic power dynamic that exists between the young civilian government and the military. National COVID responses such as lockdown and policing strategies could re-enforce the military wings of government and the return of a military state is not inconceivable. As with other countries facing elections this year, Myanmar must examine both what a COVID election will look like, and how to protect its democracy.